The first Q/A in Marilyn vos Savant’s December 19th, 2010 column

Okay, I’ll try to be objective about Ms. vos Savant, but it won’t be easy. The woman drives me crazy; highest IQ in the world supposedly, and she writes an insipid column for Parade magazine answering questions to which nobody nowadays with access to Wikipedia should ever admit ignorance. Plus her brain teasers always seem to be about what strings of random words have in common, and have answers like, “If you switch the second letter and the fourth, you get another word”, and as a mathematician any riddle that gets lost in translation drives me up the wall. But. She has popularized some very entertaining and counter-intuitive probability questions, like the Monty Hall one, so I will look past my misgivings.

I am writing from a military base in Iraq. We are encouraged to drink a lot of water, and we keep our refrigerator-freezer filled with it. We’ve noticed that if you put a bottle in the freezer, the water sometimes remains a crystal-clear liquid. Yet when you take the bottle out, the water starts to freeze and then turns quickly into frozen mush. Why does this happen?
—John Parrott, Alabaster, Ala.

The phenomenon is called “supercooling.” Ordinarily, water freezes at 32°F, but if your bottled water is distilled or purified—and undisturbed for a while—it may not be able to crystallize into ice, even at a temperature below freezing. Yet move it, and enjoy what happens!

Really, Marilyn? I get that “why” is a neverending descent into an abyss of ignorance, and about three “why”s in we’d be in quantum physics territory, so a detailed explanation of supercooling is probably too much to ask, but her response is basically, “Yes; the thing you described does happen, and here is its name. Glad I could help!” How is this any kind of answer? Why is purified water required? Why is movement required? She must know, it is basic chemistry.

Okay, benefit of the doubt. Maybe she really wanted to do this question justice, BUT those philistines running Parade keep making her downsize her responses. Sure, she spent three times as much space on the question about olive oil, which was simple and could have been sufficiently answered in a sentence, but maybe Parade is making her cater to their housewife demographic. And her column certainly takes up less space than it used to. In fact, if it keeps up I predict by the end of the decade her column will be an actual singularity, wedged between page after page of detailed prescription drug ads.

So, while she didn’t really ANSWER the question, she did give the reader enough information to maybe look up the answer on his own. And she chose to answer the question of an AMERICAN PATRIOT, so +2 points. Maybe she is lazy, but maybe she just needs to put more effort into Fighting the Good Fight.

Either way, her answer gets a: 6/10


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